LAS VEGAS – It’s one of the more entertaining, if not subjective, debates in boxing.
Who’s No. 1?
Pound for pound lists are everywhere. The Boxing Writers Association has one. ESPN has one. Sports Illustrated has one. It stirs debate and offers the boxing media a chance to establish—or try to establish—a pecking order.
Recently, the top of many lists have synched up. Vasyl Lomachenko, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, a three-sanctioning body belt holder at 135-pounds, is widely viewed as No. 1. Terence Crawford, a brilliant welterweight, a former undisputed 140-pound champion who owns a title at 147, is close behind. Third, generally, is Canelo Alvarez, who earned a legitimate title in his third weight class with a knockout win over Sergey Kovalev on Saturday.
That win, frankly, should push Canelo to No. 1.
Is Canelo Alvarez as skilled as Lomachenko or Crawford? Probably not. There’s no doubt Canelo has improved significantly in recent years. The freckle faced redhead who burst onto the U.S. boxing scene in 2010, knocking out Jose Miguel Cotto on a Floyd Mayweather undercard, has become a brilliant boxer. His defense is excellent; Kovalev fired 745 shots at Alvarez, per CompuBox, landing just 115 of them, a stunning 15.4% connect rate. Kovalev was committed to the jab—he whistled 577 of them at Canelo—but Alvarez kept his guard high expertly, absorbing many of Kovalev’s punches into his gloves. His power and speed forced Kovalev to keep his powerful right hand tucked in—Kovalev landed 52 power punches, half as many as Alvarez (104).
He’s very good. But what should push Canelo to the top of the pound-for-pound lists is that he is accomplished.
Line up the resumes of Canelo, Crawford and Lomachenko. There is no comparison. Alvarez’s resume includes significant wins over Erislandy Lara and Austin Trout at junior middleweight. He beat Miguel Cotto to claim a 160-pound title. He fought two grueling fights with Gennadiy Golovkin, getting a debatable draw in the first fight and squeezing out a close decision in in the second.
Critics will say he cherry picked Kovalev, a 36-year old titleholder well past his prime, but this was no easy test. Kovalev had experienced a career resurgence entering the Alvarez fight, his pairing with trainer Buddy McGirt producing two significant wins in 2019. Alvarez didn’t just beat him—he flattened him.
None of this is to suggest that Lomachenko and Crawford can’t have the resume of Canelo, of course. They just don’t. Lomachenko will get a chance to become the undisputed lightweight champion next year, when he will likely face the winner of the Teofimo Lopez-Richard Commey fight slated for December. He has been clamoring for a fight with Gervonta Davis, a popular former 130-pound champion who has moved up. If he moves down to 130-pounds, Top Rank has some interesting fights for him there. Same thing with Crawford. Everyone knows he wants Errol Spence, Manny Pacquiao and Keith Thurman—he just has not faced them.
Canelo has, or at least that level of competition. Early last week, Canelo and his trainer, Eddy Reynoso, sat down with a small group of reporters. As Reynoso settled into a chair, he muttered “pound for pound” under his breath. When Alvarez was asked if it bothered him to not be seen as No. 1, he got animated.
“I’ve done better than they have,” Alvarez said of Lomachenko and Crawford. “I’ve done things that are better than they have done in their career … history, your resume, that’s what places you at No. 1. There can’t be anything else. [A fighter] that embraces fights, history, and who you fight, championships — everything.”
Will Alvarez be universally recognized as No. 1? Who knows. He will spend 2020 burnishing his resume. Alvarez told me in the ring last Saturday that he felt good at 175-pounds, and would consider staying there. But there is little sizzle to a title unification fight with Dmitry Bivol and even Bob Arum, the promoter of unified 175-pound titleholder Artur Beterbiev, says he can’t see Canelo agreeing to face Beterbiev, a hulking predator in the ring.
A third fight with Golovkin makes the most sense. The core boxing fan isn’t enthralled with the idea of Canelo-Golovkin III; a super middleweight matchup with Callum Smith or a cross-promotional fight with Jermall Charlo seem more appealing. But the casual boxing fan will likely be drawn to a Canelo-GGG trilogy. Alvarez has long dismissed a third fight with Golovkin, but in recent days he has seemed more open to it.
"It's really not a challenge to me,” Canelo said in the ring. “We've fought 24 rounds and I beat him. It's really not a challenge for me. But if it represents [good] business, why not?"
We know Canelo represents big business—he’s the sports most bankable star, with a DAZN deal that could be worth as much as $365 million in his pocket. He can fight anyone, and regularly shows a willingness to do just that. If he’s not No. 1 now, he won’t stop trying to support his case.